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Opinion If Hollywood wants to stop gun violence, it should stop sanitizing it

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In the wake of the Uvalde, Tex., mass shooting, some Hollywood storytellers are questioning the film industry’s love affair with guns. There’s one thing these filmmakers and showrunners could do to try to stem the tide of gun violence: stop sanitizing what guns do to human bodies. Hollywood should step up and show what journalists generally can’t depict, be it the victim of a mass shooting identifiable only by DNA or the aftermath of a suicide carried out with a gun.

Working in concert with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, more than 200 writers, directors, and producers such as J.J. Abrams, Mark Ruffalo, and Adam McKay recently signed on to an open letter calling for a period of introspection into how guns are used on-screen.

“Cultural attitudes toward smoking, drunk driving, seatbelts and marriage equality have all evolved due in large part to movies’ and TV’s influence,” the letter says. “It’s time to take on gun safety.”

Some specific suggestions: Show gun owners making use of gun safes; limit the portrayal of children and guns in the same scenes; and consider whether guns are necessary in any given scene.

This deliberation can’t hurt, but it probably won’t do much good either: Of the 45,222 people who died of gun-related injuries in 2020, 54 percent of those deaths were a result of suicide, 43 percent were murders, and roughly 1 percent were from accidents.

The extent to which on-screen violence influences off-screen behavior has bedeviled the film industry for as long as scolds have been trying to shut projectors off. The letter writers are quick to brush this aside, yet their hope that on-screen depictions of “responsible gun ownership” can influence off-screen behavior seems to open the door to an admission that irresponsible gun ownership can do the same.

The debate on this matter is long with much evidence on both sides. Some studies suggest exposing children to violence can have long-lasting effects; others suggest TV is less important than socialization. I do not propose to resolve it here.

However, as someone who owns a gun, watches a lot of violent movies and enjoys the occasional first-person shooter video game, I’m skeptical of claims that people in the aggregate are driven to violence by what they see on-screen. Yes, a certain number of already-deranged people are inspired by what they see in media — your John Hinckleys or your Matrix killers. But there’s little Hollywood can, or should, do to account for random crazies.

If “America’s storytellers” really want to change public perception of guns, they should consider being more honest on-screen about what bullets do to bodies. The issue isn’t really on-screen violence — it’s bloodless on-screen violence, the sort of violence in which guns fire and bodies simply fall to the ground in what could just as easily be sleep as death.

Journalist Jason Fagone in 2017 talked to trauma surgeons who deal with the reality of gun violence — mangled limbs, severed arteries, invasive and repeated surgeries — as well as victims. And that reality is sometimes simultaneously surreally and banally gruesome.

One man shot in the abdomen, Fagone wrote, “spent the next 11 months in the hospital, immobilized in bed, with an open wound down the front of him that had the circumference of a basketball. It got to the point where it was a normal thing for him to look down and think, oh, those are my intestines, there they are.”

Realistic violence in movies is often jarring when we see it because we see it so rarely. The only time I’ve seen an audience watching an installment of the “John Wick” franchise flinch had nothing to do with the abundance of gunplay. Early in the third film, a brawl ends with the titular assassin jamming a knife into the eye of an assailant. It’s intimate, bloody and horrifying — more so than every gun shot that preceded it.

If television and film luminaries really want to change the discussion of guns, they’ll pursue a bloodier type of filmmaking. Make standard the use of squibs — little explosives that create geysers of fake blood — during gunplay. These practical effects not only heighten the impact of the violence we see but also slow down productions that rely too greatly on cheap kills, causing a bit more thoughtfulness about when on-screen violence should be deployed.

If Hollywood wants to help reduce suicides, which constitute the majority of gun-violence deaths in the United States, it should show people what happens when a bullet goes through a head. Show the aftermath. The cleanup. That it’s not like a light softly going out, that it’s an extremely violent act, one that will leave a mess for your loved ones.

Some have suggested we need an “Emmett Till moment” after Uvalde showing photos of the victims and what the bullets did to their bodies. The sentiment is understandable, as is the disgust or the concerns about exploitation such a suggestion generates.

Those qualms wouldn’t apply to a fictionalized-but-realistic portrayal of such horror, however. And these images could help the public understand what gun violence really means.

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